As is now doubtless known to even casual followers of business news, 2015 was a record year for automobile and truck sales in the United States. And given how important the automobile industry remains to the American economy, that’s got to be incredibly bullish news, right?
Well, as that rental car commercial says, “Not exactly.” And not just because of worries that too many vehicle buyers have subprime credit ratings, or that loose money overall has simply “pulled forward” much auto buying that would have taken place anyway but over longer periods of time. Another reason to be concerned is that vehicle sales haven’t kept pace with the nation’s population growth.
The final number for 2015 U.S. auto and truck sales was 17.46 million – which broke the record of 17.35 million set in 2000. But in 2000, the American population was 281.4 million. Last year, it was 321.4 million. So since that last auto sales record, 15 years ago, vehicle purchases are up 0.63 percent while the number of Americans rose by 14.21 percent. That doesn’t seem like a killer performance to me.
Of course, not all of today’s U.S. population can buy a vehicle because not everyone’s old enough to drive, much less own a car. Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau provides data on the population by age group – although the 2015 breakdown is not available yet. We do have the numbers for 2014, though, and they don’t look especially impressive either.
That year, the number of Americans over 18 years of age hit 245.63 million, and this group bought 16.50 million autos and trucks. In 2000, the 18-and-over population was 209.1 million, and again, they bought 17.35 million vehicles. So the vehicle buyers’ market grew by 17.47 percent from 2000-2014, but vehicle purchases actually fell. And the detailed 2015 population data seem unlikely to change this picture much.
So the bottom line seems to be that, by total sales, 2015 was a good auto sales year in America, but nothing genuinely historic or even close. And given the possibility of more interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, a slowing U.S. economy, or both, the industry could be hard-pressed even to match this performance this year.